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The Red Tree
Caitlin R. Kiernan
ROC paperback $16

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There is something profoundly unsettling about writing. I refer not to the act of writing itself but to the idea of it. Just think: here are collections of knots and notches, symbols and scribbles which - despite being inherently arbitrary in their representations - not only make perfect sense to the people looking at them, they have also come to be seen as the supreme benchmark of civilisation. Even more disconcerting than this, writing not only has the capacity to represent the world, it can also change the way in which we experience it. Books define worlds. Books change worlds. Books contain worlds.

Caitlin R. Kiernan's world fantasy award-nominated novel The Red Tree is ostensibly a ghost story. It is a ghost story involving an evil tree, a sinister basement, a fractured sanity and books. Lots and lots of books... Books that are real. Books that are made up. Books contained within other books. Books referred to, spoken of, quoted from and complained about. The Red Tree is not just a ghost story, it is a book about humanity's relationship with writing and it is absolutely terrifying. The tone is set by the editor's preface.

The preface claims that The Red Tree is a found manuscript collated out of a series of notes taken by the mid-list author Sarah Crowe prior to her disappearance. An age-old literary trick that reaches all the way back to the early days of the novel, the epistolary form is a framing device that serves to reinforce the implied realism of what you are reading. The message is that what you are about to read is no mere work of fiction... it is a collection of letters (e.g. Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister by Aphra Behn), a heretofore undiscovered set of memoirs (e.g. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas) or rough footage from a documentary found buried beneath the foundations of an old house (e.g. The Blair Witch Project by Myrick and Sanchez). So you had better pay extra special attention.

The Red Tree does not make use of such venerable techniques in order to convince you that its story is a true one. Indeed, the book's cover and concluding author's note make no allusions to 'real life events'. Instead, Kiernan uses her fictional editorial preface as the top layer of what soon reveals itself to be a highly sophisticated interlinking structure of stories, delusions and made-up references. The editor introduces us to Sarah Crowe, who then tells us her story through quotations, short fiction, dream sequences, psychotic delusions and outright lies. Beneath all of these dove-tailing realities lies the truth. At least in theory...

Sarah Crowe is initially presented to us as a writer at an impasse, a writer with expensive medical bills, a writer with insufficient residuals and a writer who has spent the advance she received on a novel that remains unwritten. Sarah Crowe must write and yet she cannot. She cannot because a messy break-up has left her unable or unwilling to put pen to paper. Despite her looming personal crisis, Crowe is an instantly engaging character. A foul-mouthed, over-sexed, forty-something lesbian, Crowe writes from her isolated Rhode Island farm house with a glimmer in her eye and a hard-boiled sense of humour that is deliciously at odds with both the natural beauty that surrounds her and the emotional fragility that defines her.

"The coffee is bitter and good, but I wish I had a cigarette" (page 19).

"Here you are, Amanda, like a wasp sealed in a hard, translucent nugget of Baltic amber, like a pearl, like a splinter wedged beneath a fingernail. Here you are, recorded for future demonologists to summon and puzzle over or merely fear. I need food. I need a goddamn drink." (page 58)

Seeking to kill time, Crowe begins to wander around the grounds of her farm house eventually exploring the old house's basement, in which she finds an ancient typewriter containing a page from an unpublished manuscript by a local anthropologist. An anthropologist who reportedly hanged himself in the house... The manuscript turns out to be a commentary upon the facts and folklore surrounding a well-known local landmark. A huge red oak which was once worshipped by the local native Americans. A huge red oak around which a serial killer buried the remains of his victims... A huge red oak that stands only a few hundred yards from Crowe's goddamn kitchen window.

"And, reading that I realised the tree is within easy view of the goddamn kitchen window, that I've been staring at the thing for two months now with no idea whatsoever that it was anything more significant than the Very Big Tree between the house and the pond." (page 94)

And so Crowe visits the tree and finds it to be a very big tree indeed, but nothing else. A few days later, Crowe's peace is shattered by the arrival of Constance Hopkins, a painter who has decided to rent the farmhouse's loft. Initially annoyed, Crowe's opinion of her new housemate softens when she discovers that Constance is bisexual. The two spend a pleasant evening flirting until the conversation comes round to the question of ghosts. Crowe does not believe in them. Constance does. They both have quite similar ghost stories to tell but one is presented as a half-dream while the other is presented as a the sort of pseudo-scientific echo-in-time that features in Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape (1972).

This conversation introduces not only the idea that the supernatural might be a real force in the world but also a degree of tangible uncertainty surrounding that idea. The world of The Red Tree is one in which ghosts may or may not exist, there is room for doubt. This thematic foreshadowing promptly pays off when the pair decide to go and visit the red tree. But despite the tree only being less than a hundred yards from their back door, they somehow manage to get lost.

"Are we back to writing as an act of exorcism? Wait, don't answer that question. In fact, no more questions requiring answers, no more questions, just what I am left to believe occurred this afternoon when we tried to visit the tree." (page 147)

An unsettling but not necessarily supernatural event, the pair's visit to the tree serves to tighten the psychological screws already exerting pressure on the house. Initially quite friendly, Constance and Sarah begin to alternate between cycles of hatred, love, desire and alienation. A cycle that seems to be accelerating along with the sense that the lines between fact, fiction, dream and madness are starting to blur into one another.

The Red Tree is an intensely literate piece of writing. Indeed, barely a page goes by without Kiernan referring to another book or author. These references run all the way across a broad spectrum of directness ranging from the quotation (Thoreau is particularly well used) to the stylistic tip of the hat (M.R. James), but what makes The Red Tree so relentlessly fascinating are the styles of reference in-between these two traditional points.

For example, Kiernan will refer, in passing, to the idea of whip-poor-wills being psychopomps inviting Horror fans to smile at the reference to H.P. Lovecraft's short story The Dunwich Horror (1928). But the references do not end there. From a sly tip of the hat we move to direct references to the story, references to Lovecraft's family and then to invocations of Lovecraftian imagery in Crowe's descriptions of the artwork produced by her ex-partner Amanda:

"She says it was originally named Coffin Corner, until the paternal grandfather of H.P. Lovecraft, Whipple Philips, bought pretty much the whole village back in the 1850s and renamed it" (page 99).

"Women with the serrate teeth of sharks and men with blind, toothsome eels where their cocks should have been. There were unnamable masses of tentacles and polyps and eyes" (page 55).

These different referential methodologies soon find their way out of Crowe's conversational style and into the structure of the novel itself. As Crowe's diary entries drag us onwards through time, we learn more about Crowe's history. It filters out through the short stories she writes. It filters out in dream imagery. It filters out in pseudonymous form, in lies and in hallucinations. By the end of the book the membranes between Crowe's 'real' life, her dreams, her delusions, her artistic output and her literary reference points have entirely dissolved leaving a confused and untraceable patchwork of uncertain causes and shocking effects.

As in Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History (2000), The Red Tree seems to feature books that do not so much mirror reality as dictate its terms but, unlike Ash, The Red Tree never settles down into any clear divides between reality and fiction. Is the red tree genuinely wicked? Did Amanda kill herself? Did Constance disappear? Did Sarah take a drug overdose? The Red Tree asks all of these questions but provides no firm answers or even clues as to what the truth might be. It is a book that leaves you utterly adrift on a sea of fiction, fact, madness and universal foreboding. The deeper you dive, the deeper the water beneath you seems to become.

At heart, The Red Tree is a book about the relationship between literature and reality. By breaking down the boundaries between fact and fiction, Kiernan is exploring the ways in which books can both colour our perceptions of the world and serve as a protective buffer zone between us and the harshness of reality. Sarah Crowe uses literary references to make sense of the world around her, but each literary filter she applies to the world comes with strings attached, strings that serve only to distort the world further.

Consider for example, the Lovecraft references cited above. It is as though, having been invoked, Lovecraft's spectre refuses to be put down and his literary shade starts to merge into Crowe's memories and the landscape surrounding her. Literature protects from the world but it also changes it and once you have allowed these changes to take place, there is really no telling where they will stop. Is it possible to over-intellectualise to the point where one becomes completely detached from reality? Can one read so much escapist literature that one never manages to find one's way home? These are the questions that Kiernan asks of her readers. These are the fears that The Red Tree makes manifest.

However, as fearsomely clever as Kiernan's layered realities may be, they can be problematic. Indeed, while Kiernan's invocations and deconstructions of familiar tropes are undeniably novel and fascinating, they are still invocations of familiar tropes and because The Red Tree is filled with ideas that have been used and re-used by generations of horror writers, the book tends to engage us at a cerebral rather than visceral level.

One's reaction is usually 'that's clever' rather than 'that's really frightening'. This is not to say that The Red Tree is not a successful work of horror but it does mean that Kiernan's prose has to shoulder more than its fair share of the burden when it comes to generating affect and raising those hairs on the back of the neck. This development is doubly problematic given Kiernan's fondness for quotations. For example, consider Crowe's journal entry following an encounter with the tree that occurs late in the book:

"There's a passage from Joseph Conrad that says what I felt in that moment far better than I could possibly hope to articulate on my own. Maybe it's cheating, cadging the words of another author because I find myself wanting, inadequate to the task at hand. I just don't care anymore. We could not understand, because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign - and no memories. Or, again, Thoreau's "Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night." Or, finally, in my own faltering language, here, before me, was all time given substance, given form, and the face of a god, or at least a face that men, being only men, would mistake for the countenance of a god." (page 315)

This is one of those passages designed to sell a set-piece. It's one of those moments when the narrator steps back from the fray of events in order to speak directly to the reader and make them feel something quite specific using nothing but the power of prose. Art as emotional manipulation. Poetry as head-fucking. However, the above paragraph does not quite work. It does not work because Kiernan not only takes three separate bites at the apple, but also because - speaking as both herself and Crowe - Kiernan prefaces her stylistic fireworks with an unnecessary apology about using other authors' words.

The apology jolts us out of the moment and into a very different relationship with the text. Instead of being immersed in Crowe's experiences and ready for the stylistic knock-out punch to land, we are detached and prepared to appreciate a literary exercise. The emotional power of the three passages is bracketed by the apology. We are protected from them because the apology has forced us to detach ourselves from the text. Of course, we can interpret Kiernan's bracketing of Crowe's experience as quite deliberate and very much in keeping with The Red Tree's themes of ontological layering but therein lies the problem: Crowe brackets out reality in order to protect herself, but because we only have Crowe's first person narration to engage with, we too are protected and that protection is very much in conflict with the need for works of horror to creep us out.

Nor does it help matters that Kiernan's own words bear a distinct resemblance to those (intentionally?) misattributed to Seneca the Younger at the opening of the book:

"If ever you have happened on a grove set close with ancient trees grown beyond the common height, the pleaching of their branches one upon the other screening out sight of the sky, that loftiness of forest and solitude of place and sense of wonder at so dense and undisturbed a shade out in the open, will convince you of the presence of a god."

Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree is one of the most innovative and intelligent books I have read all year but while it is brilliantly characterised, exquisitely paced and undeniably maintains the capacity to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, I cannot help but wonder whether it is not a little bit too postmodern for its own good. Very nearly a masterpiece...

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan



copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press